EASTON, Pa. – The 15,000 fans who jammed in and around Lafayette College’s Fisher Stadium on an unseasonably sweltering 90-degree Sunday was the first big clue.
There were thunderous roars of approval, waves of Easton (Pa.) red and seas of Phillipsburg (N.J.) maroon.
They cheered on big plays galore, pin-point passes, fantastic receptions, solid execution and back-and-forth action, and one giant two-touchdown swing.
There were raffles and cook-offs and marching bands and early 30-something cheerleaders who matched their peers on the field by doing military pushups for every point scored.
Most impressive and perhaps important, there were no physical casualties, no heat exhaustion among participants, no broken bones and no one carried off on stretchers.
But undoubtedly the greatest testimonial that the Gatorade folks got their initial Replay Game correct, that pitting rounding and balding gentlemen, 16 years removed from their glory days, for a highly profiled alumni game, was by no means silly or dangerous or irrelevant, came from NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning.
Yes, the brothers were honorary coaches and Gatorade representatives. But each, from the crib onward, has seen their fill of football fanaticism.
Each, however, was genuinely blown away by every aspect of Phillipsburg's 27-12 victory over Easton in a rematch the 1993 7-7 tie played between the longtime bitter rivals that are separated by the Delaware River.
“I don’t go to many football games any more,” Peyton said. “The chance to be on that sideline for this game today was special. You could honestly feel the energy, the players getting into it. … The one thing that is apparent around here is that everyone loves football.”
Said Eli: “When I walked in I really didn’t know what to expect but this far exceeded it I can tell you that. The fans, the cheerleaders, the band and everyone came back to cheer it all on. And then to top it off the way the guys played the game was really amazing.”
But that’s how they’ve been talking about this rivalry for the past 103 games, 57 won by Easton.
It’s been tabbed the biggest rivalry game in the country by at least one publication, it’s played every Thanksgiving and the Gatorade folks searched long and wide to get just the right venue and matchup.
The fact the squads tied that game in 1993 made it a natural to replay, but of course conditioning that age group was key and left many skeptical that it would actually work.
Anyone who saw Phillipsburg inside linebacker Bruce Lebitz make a game-high 11 tackles, but more important, witness his body 10 weeks ago, knows that it worked.
The 33-year-old dropped 57 pounds in that time, going from 302 to 245.
Lebitz and all involved raved about the comprehensive eight-week training and nutrition program designed and executed by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and Velocity Sports Performance Centers.
Though Lebitz dropped all that weight he obviously wasn’t weakened. He played all but four plays under the searing heat.
“I think we proved a lot of doubters wrong,” Lebitz said. “I think we gave a good show on both sides.”
No arguments there.
The most impressive performances came from the Phillipsburg trio of quarterback Keith Kullman (14 of 20, 302 yards, three touchdowns), running back Joe Luke (8 catches, 208 yards, two TDs) and flanker Mike Lelko (seven catches, 121 yards, touchdown).
Luke, the game’s offensive MVP, caught touchdown passes of 44 and 80 yards, the latter coming with 9:42 remaining one play after Dan Homa recovered a fumble in the Easton end zone.
Easton had driven 71 yards to the 4 and looked like it was going to close to within a point but running back Justin Lockhart was hit just before he was going to cross the line, the ball spurted eight yards deep into the end zone and Homa recovered.
On the next play, Luke caught an intermediate pass, broke one tackle and was gone. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder who used to play at Lafayette, wasn’t going to be caught he said. The two-touchdown swing pretty much decided it.
“There was a question in the locker room if I had lost a step or two,” Luke said. “As soon as I saw I had an opening I didn’t want to get caught. If I would have I would have heard about it for the next months from guys on both sides of the river.”
This one is always always talked about around these parts and for Stateliners to pull it off was particularly sweet for them.
Most of the players on their side had never beat Easton during their heyday. Even though life and years added perspective to their lives, Luke couldn’t overstate his joy to finally get one over on his rival to the west.
“I’m sorry I’m so excited but I’ve never beat Easton,” he said. “We never beat Easton. I don’t care if we’re 30-years-old or 60. The opportunity to get the victory over Easton, man that’s the tops. That’s the best. That’s what living in this community is all about.”
Easton coach Steve Shiffert said that fervent rivalry and community spirit is why the game was so crisp, that the players were so dedicated to their fitness and that they escaped the game unscathed.
He admitted he was skeptical when he first heard about The Replay concept.
“But these are Easton P-Burg kids,” he said. “They are a tough breed. It’s like that every Friday night around these two communities and obviously on Thanksgiving Day. That’s they way they are brought up. They play fundamentally sound, aggressive football.”
Phillipsburg coach Bruce Smith was particularly impressed considering the heat. When the teams began training in February it was snowing.
“The conditions today would have challenged any athlete,” he said. “These are 32-year-old guys who haven’t competed in long time. The show they put on for you guys today is incredible. Incredible.”
The Mannings sensed a spirited, passionate affair before the game when they offered some expertise.
It’s been there the entire 10 weeks, said Phillipsburg fullback and defensive tackle Robert Wargo, an iron worker from Bloomsbury (N.J.) and father of two infant boys.
Wargo was the game’s Defensive Player of the Game with seven tackles, a sack and kick block. The 5-9, 195-pounder was moved to tears when given the award.
“All the training and practicing together all this time and for it to be over, it’s sad,” he said. “I gave my entire body to this game. I didn’t care if I got hurt. I didn’t care about Monday, Tuesday, the next week, the next year. I just wanted to give 110 percent, as hard as I could and whatever happened, happened.
“I never expected to (get) this award. I’m very honored.”
Easton’s Eric Detweiler, a 6-2, 205-pounder and engineer, was named the game’s top offensive lineman. He played the game with a broken hand endured at practice.
“Obviously Easton P-Burg is bred in everyone here,” Detweiler said. “The chance to play in this game again was amazing. I never gave it a second thought even after breaking my hand.”
Wargo couldn’t wait for Sunday to come. The game was announced in January and last Thanksgiving he and a friend attended the Phillipsburg-Easton game which is always played at Lafayette.
“We looked at the scoreboard and saw the attendance of 14,200 and I said to my buddy, ‘what I would give to get back on that field again,’ “ he said. “Little did I know. ..
“Personally, I’d have to see it, but I can’t imagine another rivalry like this in the United States.”
Phillipsburg 27, Easton 12
Phillipsburg 7 14 0 6 - 27
Easton 6 6 0 0 - 12
P – Mile Lelko 11 pass from Keith Kullman (Eric Penyak kick), 10:36
E – Josh Miller 5 pass from Kyle Geiger (kick blocked), 2:09
P – Joe Luke 44 pass from Kullman (Penyak kick), 11:33
E – Blane Sandt 77 pass from Geiger (run failed), 10:38
P – Tyrone Randolph 6 run (Penyak kick), 5:29
P – Luke 80 pass from Kullman (kick failed), 9:42.
First Downs: PB 12, E 14
Rushing attempts/yards: PG 17-21, E 32-156
Passing: PG 15-22-2, E 10-18-0
Passing yards: PG 329, E 173
Total yards: PG 350, E 329
Turnovers: PG 3, Easton 3
PB: Luke 8-28, Randolph 3-8, Jason Garcia 2-3, Lelko 1-0, Kullman 2-(-18), team 1-0.
Easton: Blaze Clymer 14-97, J. Lockhart 8-41, Geiger 8-10, Degrammont 1-5, Bolmer 1-3.
PB: Kullman 14-20-1-302, Luke 1-2-1-27
Easton: Geiger 10-18-0-173.
PB: Luke 8-208, Lelko 7-121.
Easton: Michael Bolmer 3-23, Blane Sandt 2-85, Clymer 2-41, Josh Miller 2-29, Lockhart 1-(-5).
PB: Bruce Lebitz 11, Robert Wargo 7, Brian Snyder 6, Brian Dalpe 5, Johnson Keith 4.
Eason: Bolmer 5, Phill Taverna 5, Dwayne Grays 4, Chris Shannon 4.
Easton: Toaye Berry, K Hochmann.